International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 every year to recognise women’s phenomenal contribution to society and raise awareness about women’s rights. Healthwatch Essex is spending today acknowledging the incredible women working to ensure people’s health and wellbeing across Essex, past and present.
Women as Activists and Advocates
Historically, Essex has been a hotbed for women’s health trailblazers. In 1915, local councillor Adelaide Hawken established a mother and baby clinic in Southend-on-Sea, some thirty years before the foundation of the NHS. Committed to the health and wellbeing of mothers and their young children, Hawken used her political clout to secure funding for the clinic from Southend Council. A strong advocate for women’s suffrage, Hawken later became one of the first female magistrates in Britain.
Essex remains the birthplace and home of prominent women’s activists today. Internationally-renowned model, writer, broadcaster, and activist Munroe Bergdorf hails from Stansted Mountfitchet, and has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness about issues relating to race and identity. She shares her own experiences as a mixed-race, transgender woman with the aim to support others, and has written about concerns ranging from mental health to online trolls. Munroe was named a Time magazine ‘Next Generation Leader’ in 2021.
Recently chosen by TikTok as ‘one to watch’, Disability activist, writer and mentor Nina Tame is based in Essex. She uses social media to share her experiences as a disabled woman and raise awareness about issues relating to accessibility and ableism. Last year, Essex County Council made Nina a Snapping the Stiletto Ambassador, recognising her work to ‘inspire confidence in other disabled people and change perceptions of disability’.
Women in the Charity Sector
Women also play a vital role championing health and social care issues in Essex’s charity sector. Amy Woolf was just 33 when she was appointed Chief Executive of the Colchester-based charity MS-UK in 2014. A nationwide charity, MS-UK supports anyone affected by multiple-sclerosis (MS). Her work at MS-UK includes leading the charity’s national helpline, publishing a magazine New Pathways (which has an international audience), facilitating a counselling service, and providing e-learning courses in MS awareness. In 2016, Amy was named the University of Essex Alumna of the Year. The award celebrated her commitment to challenging accepted beliefs and actions, and empowering others to make their own choices.
Jacquie Russell has run The OutHouse, which offers a range of services supporting LGBTQ+ people across East Anglia, since 2018. Originally established as Colchester Gay Switchboard in 1979, The OutHouse provides counselling and education workshops, resources and signposting, and an array of social and support groups. Jacquie has a background in supporting families and children and played a key role in the establishment of several Sure Start centres in Colchester. She is passionate about her work at The OutHouse and is committed to spreading the word about all that it does.
Women in the Community
Women in Essex have established a variety of initiatives that support the health and wellbeing of those in their local communities and beyond. Essex-based Rachel Walton has an extensive background in community development. Having previously run young people’s groups in Kenya, Rachel moved to Britain in 2007, where she founded African Families in the UK (AFiUK). AFiUK supports African and other ethnic minority families, offering advice on parenting and education, and providing a variety of family-friendly activities. Rachel is committed to ensuring that public services are accessible to BAME communities. Working with primary care trusts in Essex, she coordinated a wellbeing and keep fit initiative that brought together members of the Chinese, Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Indian communities across the county. In 2018, Rachel was recognised by the Queen for her outstanding contribution to her community.
Love Grace is a handbag appeal founded in honour of Grace Millane, who grew up in Wickford and was tragically murdered while travelling in New Zealand in 2018. Set up by Grace’s family, the appeal empowers survivors of domestic abuse by collecting handbags and filling them with essential items, including toiletries and stationery, before distributing them to women’s refuges. Love Grace has run appeals across the UK, New Zealand, USA, Canada and Singapore, and has donated an incredible 10,000 handbags to women in need. On receiving her handbag, one recipient described it as ‘the first time I felt like someone believed me and believed in me’. The appeal also delivered hundreds of care packages to NHS staff at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, Grace’s mother Gillian and cousin Hannah O’Callaghan were given Points of Light awards by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Points of Light are national awards that recognise outstanding volunteers.
Women in Research
Women in academia have also been producing research that aims to understand and enhance women’s health and wellbeing across Essex. Professor Catherine Meads at Anglia Ruskin University is an expert in LGBTQ+ women’s health. Her research raises awareness about the barriers that LGBTQ+ women face when seeking health and social care. Based in the Department of History at the University of Essex, Professor Tracey Loughran has spent the past four years leading the ‘Body, Self, and Family’ project, which explores women’s everyday health experiences in Britain from 1960-1990. Histories of women’s health have typically focused on doctor’s changing perspectives of particular health conditions and procedures. This project has aimed to understand women’s changing experiences of health and social care in their own words, by recording oral history interviews with ninety-one women across the country, including many based in Essex. The project has also produced a toolkit – ‘Bodies, Hearts, and Minds: Using the Past to Empower the Future’ – which draws on the history on women’s health to encourage young people to think differently about their emotional and bodily wellbeing today.
In showcasing these incredible women, we have also highlighted how you too can engage with and support the important work that they do across Essex. Just click on any of the links above to see how you can get involved. We wish you all a very happy International Women’s Day.